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Homework and other teenage stresses

The London Times this morning is reporting that the headmistress of Cheltenham Ladies’ College, one of the UK’s most prestigious private schools, is considering getting rid of homework.   Eve Jardine-Young, principal of the 162-year old school, where 92% of the GCSE were grades A* or A last year, has described ‘prep’ as Victorian, and has said it is not clear that handing out homework in two or three subjects is appropriate today.  She has said that she is deeply concerned by what she regards as a crisis of adolescent stress and unhappiness: “We’ve created this epidemic of anxiety for ourselves as a society, and if our obligation as educators is to try to the best of our ability to set young people up as best we can for whatever future may hold, then to ignore this whole area or to trivialise it is really irresponsible.”

This “epidemic of anxiety” has, I think, been caused by us all – parents, teachers, universities, employers, governments – focusing far too closely on academic results in school, to the detriment of educating the whole child.   The (I think spurious) message that we are all pedalling is simple:  Concentrate on your classroom studies and your exams above everything else.  If you don’t, you will be a failure.

The upshot of this worldwide is frightening.   In South Korea, many children are attending school during the day, then going straight on to cramming classes in the evening.  Despite a government-imposed 10:00 p.m. curfew on cramming schools, students often spend long hours – from 8:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. – studying at home, at school, at expensive hagwon and online. And although they perform well on international tests, South Korean students’ interest in school and satisfaction rate is low, relative to their peers in other OECD countries.  A recent survey shows that just over half of South Korean teenagers have had suicidal thoughts in the last year, while nearly one in three said they had felt very depressed.  Over 40% of the survey respondents in the Feb. 20-27 2014 poll by the Korea Health Promotion Foundation, an affiliate of the finance ministry, said that school pressure and future uncertainty concerned them the most.

I hear stories every day, from all over the world, of teenagers being forced to give up sports, music lessons, going to Guides, Scouts or Cadets, so that they can apply themselves to their academic studies.

I think this is an immense shame – and a very, very foolish road for society to tread.

Extra-curricular (or co-curricular) activities help to foster the development of resilience and grit.  They help pupils make decisions for themselves, to put things in perspective, to experience failure and learn to take (and manage) risks.   To use a rather unfashionable (but I think very apt) term, they help build good, old-fashioned, character.

At The Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award, we believe that what goes on in the classroom is important, but that it’s only half the story.   Young people need experience of adventure, service to the community, physical activity and practical skills development (whether that be learning to play a musical instrument or beekeeping) to discover their full potential and to equip themselves for life.

Kurt Hahn, the German-British headmaster who helped HRH Prince Philip found the Award, once said, “I regard it as the foremost task of education to insure the survival of these qualities: an enterprising curiosity, an undefeatable spirit, tenacity in pursuit, readiness for sensible self-denial, and above all, compassion.”   These qualities can’t be learned solely from books.

If getting rid of homework will allow the girls of Cheltenham Ladies’ College to spend even longer on the playing field, in the hills, in music practice rooms and volunteering, then I’m all in favour.

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